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Pre-dating confederation, Labatt’s history on tap in Western University’s digital archives

Labatt workers, circa 1914. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

In London, knowledge, and beer are both brewing.

Now, worlds are colliding as Western University and Labatt launch a digitized exhibit showcasing historical artifacts that span the brewery’s 173-year history in Canada.

The brewery donated its large corporate archive, comprised of thousands of documents and artifacts, to Western in 2011, said Sharon MacKay, Labatt’s director of corporate and brand communications. “From there, our main goal was to make it more accessible, and we decided to partner again in digitizing and creating the online exhibit,” she said.

The university has uploaded hundreds of digitized photographs, documents, and audio-visual components for public consumption on a special web portal set up by Western Libraries.

Labatt brew available at the Western Fair, 1918. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

The exhibits offer a glimpse at the inseparable link between Labatt and Canada — London, specifically — going back to its founding by John Kinder Labatt in 1847, 20 years before Confederation.

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As Canada evolved, so did the company — making the exhibit one that paints a portrait of national history as much as that of one company.

“It’s much more than the history of Canada’s most venerable brewery,” said Robin Keirstead, an archivist with Western Libraries, in a statement. “It’s a multi-faceted view into events that shaped this country, from the ordinary to the extraordinary: it’s a source of cultural, social, political, industrial, corporate and sports history that you simply won’t find anywhere else.”

The famous Labatt Streamliner, circa 1930s. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

The collection’s contents intertwine aspects of the company’s history with the country’s — such as coverage of the Franklin search for the Northwest Passage, which was underway when John Kinder Labatt brewed his first batch. Or the donation by Labatt of 1,000 pounds of flour to “destitute Londoners.” Or the care packages sent by the brewery to Canadian soldiers in the Korean War.

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“None of these events in the Labatt corporate life took place in isolation,” said Mike Dove, acting director of Western’s public history Master’s program, in a statement. “We believe these highlights, placing the Labatt timeline in the context of other things happening locally and around the world, will help people gain a deeper understanding of history.”

The exhibit is accessible at labattheritage.lib.uwo.ca.

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